Solitude & Sincerity: RIP John Haines, 1924–2011

March 4, 2011

 

John Haines Photo © Dorothy Alexander

In the spring of 1997, I was living in Anchorage, Alaska, and was invited by the University of Alaska Anchorage to put together a program for their annual Writing Rendezvous conference.

I thought about the fact that I was in Alaska and we were coming to the close of a century and that poetry seemed to be at a crossroads.

And then I thought about John Haines.  Any panel on poetry in Alaska must feature John Haines, I thought. Haines was a kind of unofficial permanent poet laureate of Alaska.

Since moving there to homestead in 1947, Haines had crafted and composed poetry of great solitude and sincerity out of his Alaska experience.

Haines was pleased to join the panel, although he said something about being too old to be of interest to the audience.  Then I told him the panel would be rounded out by a young spoken word poet and an Alaska Native woman poet.  He got a spark and became more interested in the prospect.

I don’t remember much about the panel — and I confess I don’t have my notes at hand.  It was called “Poetry at the Edge of the Millennium” or somesuch.  I do remember the panelists were engaged with each other and engaging to the audience.

And I recall that Haines stirred up a bit of controversy on the panel talking about spoken word versus conventionally printed poetry.  That was pretty typical for the poet.

“He was a cantankerous, insufferable, unbendable old bastard but he was a damn good writer,” longtime friend John Koolstra told the Fairbanks Daily News Miner.  “He is Alaska’s best writer.  He was a standout.”

So when I heard that John Haines died last night in Fairbanks at the age of 86, I thought about his poetry.

From his isolated cabin above the Tanana River in Alaska’s Interior, he learned  “to make things for myself, to build shelters, to weave nets, to make sleds and harnesses, and to train animals for work.  I learned to hunt, to watch, and to listen.”

And there he crafted poems out of a spiritual wilderness where his solitary imagination confronted existence without the comforting illusions of society (to paraphrase poet Dana Gioia).

Here is John Haines’ poem “Fairbanks Under the Solstice”

Slowly, without sun, the day sinks
toward the close of December.
It is minus sixty degrees.

Over the sleeping houses a dense
fog rises—smoke from banked fires,
and the snowy breath of an abyss
through which the cold town
is perceptibly falling.

As if Death were a voice made visible,
with the power of illumination…

Now, in the white shadow
of those streets, ghostly newsboys
make their rounds, delivering
to the homes of those
who have died of the frost
word of the resurrection of Silence.

–John Haines

 

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3 Responses to “Solitude & Sincerity: RIP John Haines, 1924–2011”

  1. Erin Says:

    Thank you for this lovely remembrance. As an Alaskan poet, I feel a little poorer at his passing, but richer in knowing that his work carries on.


  2. Thank you for writing about John Haines. I got to speak with him by telephone last year and we exchanged letters about poetry and recording poetry. He sent me a CD of his poems read by him. His poem The Cauliflower was one that I memorized out of love for it when I was in college. Thank you again. Thank God for John Haines may he continue to inspire poetry from others.

  3. jo Says:

    John is a great poet, and great poetry lives beyond and above the vagaries of personality, circumstances, time and place.


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